Sustainable Land Use and Progressive Realism



Are we making any progress towards land use that is more ecologically sustainable?  Is future progress possible?  These questions don’t have easy answers.  After all, terms like “sustainable development,” “sustainable communities,” and “smart growth” are broad enough to mean a lot of different things to different people and groups.  Their breadth can mask policies that might not be all that environmentally responsible or that might have unintended consequences.  They can result in merely symbolic policies without much substantive effect.  Efforts to achieve effective reforms encounter strong and persistent political, economic, socio-cultural, and psychological barriers.


Nonetheless, realism about the prospects of environmentally responsible land use policies cuts both ways.  There are areas of common ground between protecting natural environments and promoting good human quality of life.  There are achievable reforms that are being adopted or considered.  The land use planning and regulatory system has the capacity to promote and demand land use practices that are more environmentally sustainable than current practices.


Two different articles make realistic and balanced assessments of progress-to-date on sustainable land use in the United States, focusing primarily on progress among states and localities.  These articles also offer a variety of useful ideas about potential future progress and reform that will carry efforts towards sustainability forward.


The first article, written by land use scholar Patty Salkin, is “Squaring the Circle on Sprawl: What More Can We Do?: Progress Towards Sustainable Land Use in the States,” and was published in the Widener Law Journal in 2007.  It can be downloaded in PDF for free from the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) at  Professor Salkin’s abstract states:

With almost ten years of nationwide dialogue and experimentation with the legal implementation of smart growth concepts at the state and local levels, this paper pauses to consider whether and to what extent success has been realized. The one certainty in this dynamic intersection of land development and conservation is that there is no one best model adaptable to all fifty states. Rather, to accommodate national diversity in local government structure, cultural relationships of people to the land, and differences in geography and a sense of place, the best lesson learned is that advocates and lawmakers alike must shape and adopt politically palatable policies, programs, and regulations to best fit their unique jurisdictional sustainability needs. However, with the realization that a lot of innovation is taking place at the state level in furtherance of smart growth initiatives also comes the reality that if states fail to continue to promote and refine these programs, the United States will lose the fight for sustainability. This paper examines the recent efforts by states to provide localities with the tools necessary to curb sprawl and to promote sustainable communities.  


The second article, written by sustainability expert John Dernbach and neighborhood planner Scott Bernstein, is “Pursuing Sustainable Communities: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” and was published in the Urban Lawyer in 2003.  It can be downloaded in PDF for free from SSRN at  The abstract for this article states:

This article explains what sustainable development would mean for cities and other communities in the United States, describes U.S. efforts toward sustainable communities between 1992 and 2002, and recommends actions for the next decade. While the connections between environment and development are often abstractions at the national and international levels, they are perhaps nowhere more clear than the places where people live, work, and play. Municipalities should work with each other and with other levels of government to integrate their decision making processes for environment and development, using a strategic planning process and setting goals. Between 1992 and 2002, a small number of local governments addressed sustainable development in some comprehensive way. Sustainable community efforts were most visible on specific issues such as brownfield redevelopment; public access to information, participation, and justice; land use; transportation; housing; public health services; and education. In the coming decade, local governments should adopt and implement sustainable development strategies in coordination with nearby municipalities, and that states and the national government support such efforts. Sustainable development can and should be the organizing principle for improving quality of life and opportunity in our communities. The article also includes recommendations on specific issues.